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5 Classic Poisons and the People Who Used Them

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Long before our modern industries developed the cleaning products, industrial solvents, and drugs that can kill when misused, people used simple plants to murder each other. Some plants were especially effective.

1. Nightshade

Atropa Belladonna is also known as deadly nightshade. The flowering plant is native to Europe and can grow up to ten feet tall if left to grow for years. Although all parts of the plant are poisonous, the shiny black berries are most poisonous. The words bella donna mean pretty woman in English. This name may have come from the use of belladonna to dilate the eyes in order to make a woman more attractive to men. Image by Flickr user peganum.

180MacBethThe alkaloid Atropine is one of the the active ingredient in nightshade. Atropine is used during surgery to regulate the heartbeat, decrease salivation, and paralyze muscles. In eye surgery, it relaxes the muscles and dilates the eye. Another drug found in nightshade is scopolamine, which has some of the same properties as atropine, and (in very dilute quantities) is also used for motion sickness and to combat drug addiction. Famous users of nightshade are not confirmed, but legend has it that when Agrippina the Younger hired the serial killer Locusta to kill the Roman emperor Claudius, she used nightshade. Before he became king in 1040, Macbeth supposedly used nightshade to poison an army of Danes who invaded Scotland.

2. Hemlock

550hemlock

Poison hemlock (conium maculatum) is a flowering plant with fleshy, carrotlike roots that can grow up to ten feet tall. This hemlock is no relation to the coniferous eastern hemlock tree in North America. All parts of the poison hemlock plant contain poison alkaloids. If ingested, conium will cause paralysis of various body systems. Paralysis of the respiratory system is the usual cause of death. Meanwhile, a victim can't move but is aware of what is happening as the mind is unaffected until death is imminent.
550socrates

The most famous case of hemlock poisoning was that of Greek philosopher Socrates in 399 BC. The 70-year-old was found guilty of heresy in a trial in Athens. His sentence was death by hemlock, and he had to drink the poison by his own hand. Socrates drank up, then walked around until he noticed his legs were heavy. As shown in this 1787 painting by Jacques-Louis David, Socrates was surrounded by students and adherents as he died.

3. Strychnine

550strychnos

Strychnine is made from seeds of the plant Strychnos nux vomica, found in Asia and Australia. The poison was first isolated from the plant in 1818 by two French chemists. Pierre-Joseph Pelletier and Joseph-Bienaimé Caventou, who also isolated quinine (used to treat malaria) from its source. Strychnine has been used as a homeopathic remedy (in very diluted form), a performance-enhacing drug for athletes, a slight hallucinogenic used to cut street drugs, and most commonly as rat poison.

150creamStrychnine is an alkaloid (like hemlock or atropine) that paralyzes the victim and causes death by respiratory failure. There is no antidote for strychnine. Dr. Thomas Neil Cream killed at least seven women and one man, possibly many more, between 1878 and 1892 by giving them strychnine as medicine, both in the US and England. After serving ten years of a life sentence in America, he returned to London to continue poisoning his patients. Cream was convicted of murder in England and executed in 1892. Some have speculated that Cream might even be Jack the Ripper, but records indicate that Cream was in prison in the US when the Whitechapel murders occurred.

4. Curare

550curare

Curare is a mixture of various South American natural resources used for poison arrows and blowgun darts. One of the main ingredients is an extract of the plant Chondrodendron tomentosum.  Curare is used for medicinal purposes in a highly diluted form. The main poison is an alkaloid, which causes paralysis and death much in the same way as strychnine and hemlock. However, after the respiratory system becomes paralyzed, the heart may continue beating for quite some time.

180blowgunDeath by curare is relatively slow and horrific, as the victim is awake and aware but cannot move or even speak. However, if artificial respiration is performed until the poison subsides, the victim will survive. Indigenous tribes of the Amazon basin used curare-laden arrows to hunt game for food. Curare does not affect those who eat the animals who were killed by it. A slightly different recipe for curare is used when the intended target is human, such as that used during tribal war. Curare has also been adapted for use as a muscle relaxant during surgery.

5. Arsenic

550arsenic

Arsenic is a metalloid element, atomic weight 33. It occurs in small amounts in air, water, and soil, and in greater amounts in volcanic ash and in copper and gold mines. Because it kills insects, a compound called chromated copper arsenate, or CCA was used from the 1950s to 2003 to preserve pressure-treated wood. Arsenic has been used in medicines (it was once the indicated treatment for syphilis), chemical warfare, and as a pesticide. Various arsenic compounds are used to color paint and fireworks and as a semiconductor in integrated circuits. It is also used to harden metal for ammunition and the process of bronzing. Image by Flickr user James Laing.

159borgiaArsenic kills by inhibiting the production of necessary enzymes. Small amounts of arsenic ingested over time (possibly through drinking water) can raise the probability of cancer. Acute poisoning causes stomach cramps, diarrhea, confusion, convulsions, vomiting, and death. Murder by arsenic was popular in the Middle Ages as the substance was easy to procure and the symptoms of poisoning resembled those of cholera. Now, evidence of arsenic poisoning is easier to find. Chronic arsenic ingestion can be found months, even years later in the victim's hair and fingernails. The most famous arsenic poisoners were the Borgia family in the Middle Ages. It was said that a little arsenic improved the taste of wine, and the gracious Borgias made sure their guests had the best-tasting wine possible.

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Brigido Lara, the Artist Whose Pre-Columbian Fakes Fooled Museums Around the World
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In July 1974, Mexican authorities sent a man named Brigido Lara to jail. His crime wasn't a violent one, but it was serious nonetheless: Archaeologists from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH), a Mexican federal government bureau devoted to preserving the nation's heritage, claimed that Lara had been found with ancient ceramic artifacts looted from archeological sites in the state of Veracruz.

Lara was convicted of stealing and smuggling antiquities, but he insisted he wasn't a thief—and he could prove it. All he needed were tools and some clay brought to his jail cell. 

FORGING A CAREER

Lara grew up in Veracruz, in the village of Tlalixcoyán. While his parents were peasant farmers, Lara showed artistic talent—specifically, a knack for creating figurines from clay. Veracruz is home to many archaeological sites that date back to hundreds and thousands of years before the arrival of before Christopher Columbus, and the young Lara would often find ancient terra-cotta figurines in the fields and near rivers. He claims that by the time he was 9 years old, he was making versions of these artifacts using clay harvested from a local stream.

As Lara grew older, his skill set expanded. He reportedly taught himself how to prep and oven-fire local clay, and began making objects that mimicked those of several ancient Mesoamerican cultures—imitation Olmec pots, Maya polychrome vessels, and figurines in the Aztec, Mayan, and Totonac styles. He began specializing in replicating works by the Totonacs, a culture that flourished in central Veracruz until the Spanish Conquest introduced diseases that ravaged the communities. These figurines ranged in size from large to tiny, and often depicted mythological gods wearing masks and headdresses.

It's not entirely clear whether Lara began making these figurines for fun or profit. But according to the man himself, traveling dry-goods merchants had noticed his talents before he had even reached his teens. They accepted his "interpretations," as he called his early work, in lieu of cash—then sold them on the black market. Looters also came to Lara, asking him to fix and restore stolen works. Eventually, the artist wound up working in a Mexico City atelier that produced forgeries.

No detail was too tiny for Lara. He visited archaeological sites to study just-dug-up artifacts, and harvested clay from the surrounding region to sculpt exact likenesses. He later told Connoisseur magazine that for true authenticity, he even crafted his own primitive tools and stockpiled 32 grades of cinnabar—a reddish form of mercury used by the Olmec, an ancient Mesoamerican civilization that existed between 1200 BCE and 400 BCE—for precise pigmentation. He finished his works with a ancient-looking patina made from cement, lime, hot sugar water, urine, and other ingredients, and coated the final products with a seal made from dirt and glue.

But even though Lara was a stickler for the details, he also took artistic liberties with some of his "interpretations," adding elements that wouldn't have appeared on the original artifacts. Sometimes he would include a fanciful new detail from his imagination: a winged headdress, or one that writhed with serpents; a duck-billed mask, or a dramatic, lifelike pose.

Lara didn't consider himself a forger. "My style was born with me," he told The New York Times in 1987. "I didn't learn from anyone. I studied the pre-Columbian pieces in my town that came from the burial mounds, and I used the ancient techniques. I made these pieces and I am very proud."

But by young adulthood, he'd also become a businessman, selling his unsigned pre-Columbian replicas to middlemen who re-sold them to illegal art collectors both domestically and abroad. "I was aware that many buyers then sold them as authentic pre-Hispanic works," Lara admitted to Art & Antiques magazine years later.

COMING CLEAN

Lara's forgery career may have continued undetected had he and four of his buyers not been apprehended in 1974 and charged with trafficking in pre-Columbian works. The police didn't consider Lara an artist or a forger—his works looked so real, the authorities thought they'd been dug right out of the ground.

Lara was sentenced to 10 years in jail. To regain his freedom, he devised a plan: He asked law enforcement officials to grant his lawyer permission to bring him clay and art tools. Right there in his cell, Lara created replicas of the antiques he'd reportedly stolen. Experts from the INAH examined the earthen artworks, and declared them "genuine" ancient artifacts.

The stunt worked. Lara had proven he had made the works himself, not smuggled them out of ancient sites. Finally convinced of his innocence, prison officials released him in January 1975 after he'd served only seven months of his sentence.

After his release, Alfonso Medellín Zenil, head of the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, offered Lara a job. "Our policy is, when you can't beat them, hire them," Fernando Winfield Capitaine, then the museum's director, joked to Connoisseur.

The Museo de Antropología is home to an extensive collection of artifacts from Mexico's Gulf Coast produced by ancient indigenous peoples such as the Olmec, the Huastec, and the Totonac. Lara was hired to restore these works as well as to make replicas for the museum's gift shop.

But his career as a forger wasn't behind him quite yet.

REVELATIONS AND REFLECTIONS

In the early 1980s, Veracruz governor Agustín Acosta Lagunes began repatriating pre-Columbian works from abroad, expanding the collections at the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa. But when Lara saw some of these imported works, which had been purchased at Sotheby's auction house in New York City, he pronounced them fakes. He knew, he said, because he'd made many of them—including a figure of a male dancer that had been exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History’s “Ancient Art of Veracruz” exhibit in 1971.

Little by little, it emerged that Lara’s works might have made their way into pre-Columbian art collections around the world, including in prestigious museums such as the Dallas Museum of Art and the Saint Louis Art Museum, as well as in renowned private collections. Lara claimed credit for a 3-foot statue of the Mexican wind god Ehecatl in New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and out of approximately 150 works on display in the "Ancient Art of Veracruz" exhibit, asserted that he had made about a dozen.

Among the most notorious fakes Lara claimed to have created were three life-size ceramic sculptures in the Dallas Museum of Art that had once belonged to film director John Huston. "If you look at them closely, they are copies," Lara told the Associated Press in 1987. The works were attributed to the Totonac, and thought to have been made between 600 to 900 CE. Lara, however, claimed to have produced them during the 1950s: "The details are different than the originals … the details in the breast decorations, in the shoulder patches and so on," he said. "They are very different. They are originals of course—my own."

As news spread about Lara’s forgeries, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Met in New York City, and the Dallas Museum of Art responded to the controversy by taking works off display. "All three museums acknowledged that many of the Veracruz-style objects in their collections were problematic," Matthew H. Robb, a former curator at the Saint Louis Art Museum who is now chief curator at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, tells Mental Floss.

Nobody knows exactly how Lara’s creations made their way into American museums (Lara blamed various high-profile art traffickers and dealers), but experts say they noticed when suspicious artifacts resembling his work first began popping up in the 1950s, as pre-Columbian art was becoming more and more popular among American art collectors. "They appeared out of nowhere, resembling nothing previously excavated," Edmund Carpenter, a New York archeologist, told The New York Times. "I saw some in New York, Los Angeles, Paris. Museums bought them, big collectors bought them. But nobody asked, 'How come a big find like this?'"

Bryan Just, a curator and lecturer on pre-Columbian art at the Princeton University Art Museum, chalks the phenomena up to scholarly ignorance. At the time, "there wasn't a lot of material available for comparison," he tells Mental Floss. "There are many regions, including Veracruz … where not a whole lot of archeology had been done. So for a lot of these [new] artworks, there weren't great sources to reference that answered questions like, 'How should this stuff really look?' And at that time, what had been excavated may not have been published."

There was also a shortage of experts to consult because the very idea of pre-Columbian relics as art was still relatively new. Connoisseurs only began collecting and selling these works in the early 20th century, and university scholars didn’t begin offering pre-Columbian art history courses until the 1950s, according to Just.

Not that collectors were necessarily consulting scholars in the first place: "If you were considering work that was offered to you by a dealer, you may have not wanted to consult a colleague who's an expert in that particular area if they work at a collecting institution," Just says. "You know, out of concern that they might snag it up before you do."

Fortunately, modern scholars have access to a greater body of knowledge about pre-Columbian art than their predecessors. "In retrospect, when I see Lara's stuff now, it seems pretty obvious to me that it's wrong," Just says. "It doesn't make sense when you think about it in terms of the broader context of what we know about these particular traditions."

But even today, it isn't always easy to ascertain what's real and what's not when it comes to pre-Columbian art. Experts sometimes use thermoluminescence tests, which involve removing a tiny piece of the object, grinding it up, heating it in a furnace, and observing how much light it emits. Ideally, this process can measure how long ago the clay was fired, but the results can be skewed if a work was recently exposed to extreme heat or had been cleaned.

Another issue is that "lots of these complicated ceramic sculptures are pastiches," Victoria Lyall, a curator of pre-Columbian art at the Denver Art Museum, tells Mental Floss. Artists "will use bits of older sculptures and put them back together. So you have to test a lot of different spots to really get a better sense of whether the entire piece is fake."

X-rays are a good way to spot a composite, but they interfere with thermoluminescence test results, putting conservationists between a rock and a hard place. Furthermore, clays from certain regions—like the clay Lara worked with in Veracruz—reportedly aren't as conducive to thermoluminescence testing.

A LEGACY OF LIES

Lara is now in his mid-70s. He no longer restores antiques at the Museo de Antropología de Xalapa full-time, but he still works as a consultant there, and he continues to make art under his own name. However, his legacy will forever be tied with the difficult history of pre-Columbian artwork. According to experts, it's possible that his artworks are still masquerading as artifacts around the world, and that he may have even helped shape modern scholars' perception of pre-Columbian art from Veracruz.

However, it's also feasible that Lara's stories are a composite of fact and fiction—just like his work. The artist claims to have made thousands of forgeries (one estimate places the number at more than 40,000 pieces), but some experts say it would have been nearly impossible for Lara—who was only in his 30s when he was arrested—to have produced so many works in just a few decades.

Plus, the timelines don't always add up: Lara "was about 8 years old at the time that the [Ehecatl statue] was supposedly manufactured and purchased by the Met," Lyall says.

Lara also claims to have been self-taught, but some have speculated that he's stretched the truth about his natural talent. He may have instead learned his trade by apprenticing at a young age in a Veracruz workshop that specialized in forgeries, theorizes Jesse Lerner, a professor of media studies at Pitzer College. Lara "denies all that, but it's hard to know … Just by the nature of his business, it's kind of shady," Lerner tells Mental Floss. (Lerner's 1999 documentary Ruins—a look at the history of Mexican archeology and the traffic in fakes—features an interview with Lara.)

This workshop might have sold both Lara's wares and similar works to international collectors through an established underground market. Such a scenario would explain the artist's familiarity with pieces in faraway collections, like the Met's statue, which he could describe in great detail despite likely having never produced it with his own hands. Because forgeries aren't exactly signed, it's difficult to know for sure which pieces are Lara's and which may have been made by other forgers.

Either way, Lara's frauds are a reminder to avoid believing everything you read—even if it's a label in a museum. And they offer another lesson, too.

"The types of ancient works that Lara and other forgers were imitating, they weren't intended as aesthetic objects," Lerner says. "They weren't for museums. They were representations of this whole world view of cosmic forces."

That makes forgeries like Lara's particularly problematic. "If the only way we can access that worldview is through these objects that survive, [Lara] is just adding bad data to the pool of data that we have available. He's messing up everyone's understanding of who these figures are representing, and how their universe was understood and functioned."

In other words, sometimes fakes don't just fool art lovers—they can also change our understanding of history.

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10 Cold War Artifacts From the Real-Life Bridge of Spies Auction
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U-2 designer Kelly Johnson with Francis Gary Powers (left to right).
U.S. Air Force, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The 2015 Steven Spielberg film Bridge of Spies tells the story of a captured U.S. Air Force pilot who was released from Soviet prison in exchange for the freedom of a KGB spy during the Cold War. To mark the 55-year anniversary of that historic prisoner swap, Guernsey’s is auctioning off items that belonged to the real-life military hero Francis Gary Powers.

The artifacts, donated to the auction house by Powers’s son, depict what life was like for an American spy during the Cold War. The Espionage Collection includes gear built for high-altitude covert missions, as well as documents written by Powers during his imprisonment. Here are some of the most fascinating objects going up for bid on October 6 and 7.

1. HIGH-ALTITUDE FLIGHT SUIT

Flight suit used on air force jet.

On May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers attempted to fly deeper into Soviet airspace than any U.S. reconnaissance mission had gone before. The U-2 plane was famously shot down and its pilot captured, turning what should have been a covert operation into a historic Cold War pressure point. When the auction opens in October, one lucky bidder will snag a perfect copy of the flight suit Powers wore that day. Never-been-worn, the suit still includes its two intact air hoses, similar to those that kept Powers alive when flying through the upper atmosphere. Similar technology was used to build the gear worn by astronauts and cosmonauts during the space race.

Starting bid: $5000

2. INFLATABLE RAFT

Raft used on military jet.

While the flight suit above was never actually worn by Powers, this raft was likely on board his U-2 with him the day it was shot down in 1960. Experts believe the item was salvaged and displayed in a Soviet museum following the failed reconnaissance mission. After the museum was looted, the raft was allegedly used by local fishermen for years before it was returned to Powers’s family. The flotation device measures 7-by-15-feet folded and features its original plastic inflation tube still bearing old teeth marks.

Starting bid: $750

3. SOVIET PROPAGANDA POSTER

Soviet propaganda poster.

The Bridge of Spies auction features several Soviet Union propaganda posters, including prints of Lady Justice and Vladimir Lenin. This Soviet workers poster, with a gold hammer and sickle against a field of grain, showcases some of the most iconic imagery from the era.

Starting bid: $250

4. FLUID CONTAINMENT VESSEL

Fluid containment vessel used by air force pilots.

When you've got to go, you've got to go—even if you’re a spy in the middle of a top-secret mission thousands of miles above Soviet soil. For long U-2 flights, Powers zipped this container into one of the pockets of his suit and pulled it out when he needed to relieve himself. As the item description reads, “This historic and straightforward piece of equipment proves that smart design can take you great distances.”

Starting bid: $500

5. HOUSE OF UN-AMERICAN ACTIVITIES BOOKS

Six Cold War-era booklets spread out on a table.

The U.S. government formed the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1938 to investigate citizens and organizations with suspected Soviet leanings. These six booklets dictate hearings from the committee in 1960 and outline the “subversive activities of anyone believed to have ties to Communist organizations.” They provide important context for how Cold War tensions manifested in America the year Powers was captured.

Starting bid: $200

6. POWERS’S PRISON JOURNAL

Cover of an old notebook.

Faced with up to 10 years in USSR custody, Gary Powers started teaching himself Russian shortly after he was sentenced. His notebook from that time contains two pages of English words paired with their Russian definitions handwritten in pencil. Despite his status as a prisoner of war, this behavior actually got him into trouble back in the States. Anti-Soviet sentiments were so high at the time that Powers was branded a traitor for daring to learn the language of the enemy. Fortunately this label didn’t last forever, and today he’s considered a military hero.

Starting bid: $750

7. GARY POWERS’S TRENCH COACH

Tan trench coat on a coat hanger.

Nothing says “spy” like a good, vintage trench coat. This tan London Towne jacket worn by Powers in the 1960s was originally made for Army officers. The durable cotton garment features one visible button at the neck and four concealed lower buttons for a sleek, mysterious look.

Starting bid: $600

8. FALLOUT FORECAST MAP OF THE U.S.

Map of the U.S. framed behind glass.

Nuclear conflict wasn’t just a vague threat for many Americans during the Cold War—it was an imminent reality they needed to prepare for. This atmosphere of terror produced such items as this nuclear fallout map, published by the District of Columbia Office of Civil Defense in 1960. The 28.5-by-40.5-inch map depicts the contiguous United States with the longitude and latitude points of potential radioactive decay.

Starting bid: $200

9. PIECE OF THE IRON CURTAIN

A section of lattice iron fencing.

In addition to being one of the most powerful metaphors of the Cold War, the Iron Curtain was also a literal barrier that divided Eastern and Western Europe in some rural parts of the continent. This rare 11-by-16-inch patch of iron fencing shows the welded design that prevented many Eastern Europeans from escaping Communist rule from the late 1940s to 1991.

Starting bid: $350

10. A LETTER FROM POWERS TO HIS WIFE

Pages of a letter and a postcard.

Powers wrote a letter to his wife Barbara on December 13, 1960, seven months after his capture. He wrote of his condition in the facility as well as his outlook on his situation. "As long as I do not lose hope everything will be alright,” he said. “I haven't lost hope yet." He was also interested in the new president-elect John F. Kennedy, who would come to have a major impact on the Cold War following his inauguration in 1961. Powers wrote: "Would you send me a copy of Kennedy's inauguration speech and any other statements he makes. I am very interested in what his views are and especially what his foreign policy will be..." As well as giving insight into Powers’s state of mind during this time, the document is also a Russian artifact, sporting full-color Soviet-era stamps.

Starting bid: $1500

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